Fall is my favorite time of year in the Great Northwest. Yes, it marks the beginning of the rain and the end of summer but we always seem to have a spell of Indian summer with crisp dewy or fog-laced mornings followed by clear blues skies that, for me, are the best days of the year. Fall is also when the Matsutake mushrooms emerge in the wooded forests around us, and hunting for the wild Matsutake is one of my favorite activities. This year we have been especially blessed with weeks of sunny days as well as a healthy bloom of Matsutake.
I was introduced to Matsutake hunting a few years ago in the traditional way. I was invited to tag along with experienced JA’s who knew what to pick and where to look. Indiscriminant mushroom picking is a dangerous thing to do so learning from a mushroom sensei is very important for both safety and enjoyment. It turns out that one of the most poisonous mushrooms is white with white gills as is the Matsutake so caution and learning is a vital necessity. However, the Matsutake is a truly unique mushroom and with practice their regal bearing and pungent odor make them quite easy to identify. Basically if I can’t smell that wonderous scent, some call it a mix of pine and musk others say it’s like old socks, or if I have any doubt about the identity of a Matsutake I simply leave it in the woods.
Matsutake is found in the alpine forests so hunting them consists of walking through the woods while looking along the ground. That means that if you can manage walking along sometimes hilly and uneven ground and you can see (and smell) then you can be a great mushroom hunter. When you go ahunting there are few things you should bring with. First, go with friends and keep each other in relative contact as you go and have a meet up plan just in case you get separated. It’s also good to have a noise maker such as a whistle to help locate one another if need be. Another important item is a compass, the old fashioned kind that will work even when GPS satellites are inaccessible is best. It’s amazing how easy it is to lose track of your location and direction when you’re walking around with your eyes to the ground! To harvest mushrooms you will need a knife to help cut and clean your mushrooms and you will also need a sack of some sort to hold your bounty. A pair of boots and a walking stick are also good to have in order to help manage the uneven terrain and it’s never a bad idea to bring protection from the wet and cold. Lastly, bring a snack and some water for refreshment.
At worst, hunting mushrooms is a very pleasant way to get your mind and body away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. The woodlands of our region are absolutely teeming with mushrooms of all various sizes, shapes and colors. Once you’re out there and looking in earnest, it’s amazing how focused you become trying to distinguish Matsutake from the variety all around and in doing so the day to day stresses of your mind quickly disappear. But the real excitement of mushrooming comes when you find the elusive Matsutake. They are not easy to find. Perhaps near the base of a tree nudging up from the pine straw and bark covering the ground you spot a glimpse of white. As your heart beats away, you sweep away some debris and see the noble dome, the bulky stem. You note the texture is firm, not slimy and, yes, you smell that unmistakable smell. What a thrill!
Matsutake are revered in Japan because of their rarity and their unique flavor. It turns out the species of Matsutake found here in the Pacific Northwest is not the same as those found in Asia. The Asian variety has more of a brownish color compared to ours which is why ours are sometimes called White Matsutake. I’m told, however, the flavor and smell are similar. Close enough to be considered a true Japanese treat. They have a firm, meaty texture and wonderful umami quality that adds flavor rather than augments. Simple, traditional preparations seem to work best. I enjoy them sautéed with light soy seasoning or simply steamed with rice. So hunting Matsutake is not just a great way to enjoy the outdoors, it’s also a way to keep in touch with JA friends, cuisine and tradition. Truly, it’s one of the great benefits of living in the Pacific Northwest to have this link to the old country, a taste of Japan in our own backyard.